Published in The Sun Magazine – September, 2011
No one measured the temperature in Vientiene, Laos. Everybody already knew it was hot. The afternoon I left to meet my mother at the airport, it was hot enough that the engine of the tuk-tuk I’d hailed — a boxy cab of wood and metal welded to a motorbike — heaved clouds of gray smoke and, with a swift hiss, erupted into flame. The driver, his expression blank, puffed a cigarette and crossed two lanes of traffic to park in a dry, cracked gully.
While he swatted the engine with an oily rag, I thought of my mother standing alone in the dusty warehouse that was Wattay Airport — and of my failing her before her seven-day visit even began. There isn’t a word for “late” in Lao, so I struggled to convey the urgency of the situation to the distracted driver without botching the language.
“I cannot go slowly,” I said in Lao.
“Bo pen nyang,” he said — Don’t worry. Or, It is nothing.
My friend Phet had teased me for leaving only an hour early. Sixty minutes was barely a unit of time there. After nine months in Vientiene, I’d almost adjusted to the perpetual delays and roundabout transit, but this parental visit had regressed me through time, making me feel like the clock-conscious foreigner I thought I’d left behind.
I handed the driver the agreed-upon fare and hailed another tuk-tuk. Rattling toward the airport once more, I remembered my first trip into Vientiene on this road: The grit and chaos. The roar of motorbikes and cars. The bicycles and trucks milling every which way. The dust swirling over the sepia-toned land. The buildings slouching in decay. Roadside shops sat empty while people slept in chairs, in the shade of a tuk-tuk, or on mattressless beds in open rooms. At the edge of the road, where the rush of traffic met the crumbling sidewalk, an ox lumbered against the weight of a cart almost toppling with melons, and a man walked with two dozen straw brooms lashed to his back.
Laos was suddenly new to me again as I imagined it through my mother’s eyes, acclimated for the entirety of her fifty-four years to Chevy Chase, Maryland, with brief intervals in Europe. My mother was not an adventurous traveler. She’d talked for decades about a cockroach that had once scurried across her foot in my aunt’s cabin.
“Don’t take her more than three hours from a hamburger,” the same aunt had warned me.
At the airport Lao families wore their finest silk to greet their loved ones. A few feet from where I waited for my mother, one such reunion unfolded: a round Lao woman in pink polyester pants surrounded by five people in traditional clothes, at least two of them sobbing. I wanted to be more like my friend Phet, who didn’t have a separate, less pleasant personality that emerged in the presence of family. She and her frail, gray-haired mother slept in the same room, under one blanket, on a mat on the tile floor. Phet spent hours with her mother, fetching her water, preparing soup, and dispensing pills without the slightest trace of impatience, even when the older woman railed.
“The old ones,” Phet said, “are sometimes this way.”
Suddenly my own mother stood before me, her black hair just touching the collar of a white blouse made of high-tech, sweat-wicking fabric, her dark eyes, beneath straight brows like mine, not quite meeting my gaze. The elastic strap of a money belt bulged at her waist, which had thickened only slightly over the years. She wore a red backpack, pressed khaki pants with four kinds of pockets, and new-looking hiking boots that seemed to slow her gait. There’s no jungle in Vientiene, I’d already told her numerous times. It’s a city.
Ours is not a hugging family, but I encircled her and her backpack with my arms, inhaling her scent of Chanel and mild sweat.
She pulled back. “I met a nice man on the plane. A diplomat.”
“That’s great,” I said.
“I could see you with someone like that,” she said.
I pressed my lips together.
“He’s a bit older. Doesn’t live far away — Phnom Penh I think.”
“Let me take your bag,” I said.
“Jesus, do you have cement in here?”
“That’s my brand new Apple G4.”
After my parents’ divorce, my mother had bonded to our home computer, one of the first Apple IIE’s, as if it were a slick new member of the family. Unlike me, her unruly daughter, the computer did exactly as it was told. That Apple saw her through the transition from housewife to graduate student to speech therapist. Throughout my adolescence, the Macs became brighter and easier to use while our relationship became more troubled and complex.
“Don’t worry about taking care of me,” my mother liked to say every year as her birthday approached. “You’ve already trained me not to expect anything.” This because once, right after the divorce, my father had taken my sister and me to the beach on her birthday week. Other times, after family gatherings or social events, she would assign letter grades to our performance as daughters on the ride home. I hoped that in Laos I might finally score higher than a C.
As I cradled her Mac and grabbed her other bag, an enormous suitcase on wheels, she unzipped the outermost pocket of the backpack, extracted a pale green compact, and walked next to me, inspecting her nose and cheeks. At the curb I bargained with a tuk-tuk driver as if my life hinged on the extra seven cents.
The entire ride to the village where I was staying, my mother barely spoke. She clung to an overhead bar with one hand and covered her lipsticked mouth with the other.
“That’s where I work,” I shouted over the roar of the engine as we passed Communist Party Headquarters.
“I can’t hear you.”
“I work there! That’s where I teach!”
“Stop straining your vocal cords. You need to use your breath more efficiently.”
“I’m not straining.”
“Yes, you are.”
“You’re yelling,” she said.
The driver turned onto the unpaved road to the village center. My house was the last on a row of small Western-looking structures of wood and stucco. It was relatively plush by local standards, with two bedrooms and a porch shaded by mango, lemon, and rambutan trees. Beyond my window the lane converged on a vast rice paddy, and most of my Lao neighbors lived beside this sea of green in ramshackle one-room houses on stilts.
“What do you think?” I asked my mother.
“About what?” she said.
“About the house.”
“It’s a house,” she said.
“I have my own lemon tree.” I gestured to it as if presenting a game-show prize. I’d confessed to Phet that the sight of citrus fruit growing on trees still amazed me, and perhaps I expected my mother to be similarly impressed. Instead she stared at the waist-high mound of rotting garbage in the lane, into which a wandering goat plunged its mangy head. A rooster on top of the pile squawked angrily at the goat. “That’s our alarm clock,” I said.
Across the lane my friend Chantala emerged from a one-room stilt house that leaned slightly to the left.
“Mahmah!” she said, jogging down the rickety stairs, “Sabaidi!”
Chantala bowed to my mother, raising her hands in prayer position high in front of her face, as one would for a monk or elder. My mother nodded vaguely in reply, eyeing a water buffalo in the rice paddy.
“She’s afraid of the buffalo,” I explained in Lao.
Chantala grasped my mother’s shoulder reassuringly. “Bo yan, bo yan.” Do not fear. “We take care of you, Mahmah.”
My mother swayed, squinting against the sun and smiling in Chantala’s direction.
“She’s tired,” I said to Chantala, and I steered my mother inside. She looked over her shoulder at the buffalo, which was as still as carved obsidian except for the doleful swaying of its tail.
Inside, my mother entered the bedroom and asked, “How do you turn on the light?”
“Look, a light switch. On. Off. Just like America.” I checked my watch. Less than an hour had passed. “I’m going to lie down,” I said. I crossed the hall and stretched out on the bed in the room across from my mother’s.
“How do you work the shower?” she called from the bathroom.
“You turn the knobs,” I shouted, plunging lower into the pillow as my self-esteem also sank. I imagined Phet looking with a stern expression at my refusal to assist my mother. With a moan I hauled myself up to help.
Later I unfolded a mosquito net over my mother’s bed while she unpacked four Mac Addict magazines and a cornucopia of camping accessories: an elastic clothesline, an iodine dropper, a headlamp, miniature bottles of bug repellent, a plastic compass, packets of drugs, and a first-aid kit with a red cross on top.
“We’re not going on safari,” I said.
I seized the one item I’d requested: a University of Michigan baseball cap. I’d asked for the nicest one she could find in navy blue and gold — a gift for Phet.
One night at Phet’s house I’d looked through her photos, which she kept neatly stacked on the cardboard boxes that doubled as her tables and dressers. In one picture a teenage Phet posed next to a young Thai man. They weren’t touching, but they stood flirtatiously close, shoulders sliding inward.
Phet had sighed at the photo. “He is a Thai rock star. I liked him so much. I tried to get him to give me that hat, but he liked it too much too.” Phet sounded out the syllables, “Mich-i-gan.”
“That’s where I went to university,” I said.
Phet’s coveting a Michigan baseball cap redeemed everything I’d found distasteful about the students who avidly wore U of M clothing. I associated those hats with frat boys in T-shirts that read “I drank till I puked at Phi Delta Chi” and sorority girls who participated in English classes for the sole purpose of garnering recommendations for law school. My sense of superiority to them had lingered for years, long after they’d graduated and gotten steady jobs while I’d flailed about, directionless. The hat seemed exotic to me now, too.
Each day of her visit my mother and I shared a table in an air-conditioned bakery, glassed off from the heat, the dust, and the din of traffic. Everyone knew the bakery was run by Canadian missionaries trying to convert the citizens of this Buddhist Communist country, hiding Jesus behind glazed cookies and kiwi pie. Still, it was the only place to get tuna-and-tomato sandwiches and therefore a favorite spot for expats, military, and development people. I’d taken my mother to several noodle shops, but she’d insisted that the water, and therefore the broth, might not be clean. I’d pursed my lips as she doused her soup with iodine.
After lunch we trudged from temple to temple, monument to monument, and market to market while my mother took pictures. Our last stop was the Morning Market, a sprawling, open-air warehouse with rows of shop stalls selling everything from cheap Thai radios to ground lemur bone. I watched the wood-slatted floors for spiders while my mother rummaged through the silks and carvings.
“Mom,” I said, “don’t take out all your money in public, OK?”
“Why not?” she asked, holding a wad of American dollars.
“That’s like millions of dollars in Laos.”
She looked around. The market was nearly deserted. An ancient-looking woman slept on a table, her head resting on a stack of bright fabric. My mother shrugged. “It seems safe to me.”
“It’s not dangerous,” I said. “It’s just not . . . never mind.”
“I could use a siesta,” she said.
We were quiet on the ride home and read in separate rooms for the rest of the afternoon.
“Mom, please remember that my English students are Lao communist officials, OK?” This was day five of her visit.
“Kathryn, you have told me that ten times.”
“I know, but I need you to understand.”
“What’s there to understand?”
As we approached the dingy gray government office where I taught, I feared losing the rapport with my students that I’d built over many months. I’d learned the hard way the intricate delicacies of speech in a culture that valued harmony above all, including clear communication. My mother, in contrast, said whatever came into her mind.
A few monks were crossing the parking lot in orange robes, holding black umbrellas to protect their heads and shoulders from the blazing sun. A gaggle of children cried at us, “Falang! Falang!”
“What are they saying?” my mother asked.
“It means ‘foreigner.’ Or ‘French person.’ ”
I was so accustomed to this call that I barely heard it anymore. My mother waved, and the children ran away shrieking.
Inside, we stopped by the bathroom. My mother adjusted her lipstick, and I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, my wide-eyed face stiff with shame at my jai hon — my hot heart, my impatience.
In the small, windowless classroom, the air conditioner roared, and several of my eight advanced students were already seated — a rare display of punctuality. All had their daily props:
Khingsavan with his dog-eared dictionary and magnifying glass. Nisith in his gray cadre’s uniform. Ping with her miniature mouthwash bottle and three sharp pencils. They rose to shake my mother’s hand.
“We are happy to meet you, Mahmah,” they said, with emphasis on the last syllable.
She didn’t seem to notice this unusual familiarity, but it soothed me. I remembered the limp, vague handshakes I’d received when I’d first arrived, no one meeting my eye, their words trailing off into whispers.
Nisith fetched a glass of cold water for her. I handed back their tests for review. My mother scanned a copy of the test with furrowed brow.
“Question ten is pretty unclear,” she said to me.
I ignored her. “OK, who wants to start?”
“On page three . . . ,” my mother continued.
“Ping, why don’t you start?”
“. . . you could choose answer A or answer B. Either is right.”
“Could you raise your hand please?” I said to her.
“It’s ambiguous,” my mother said.
“Am-big-u-ous,” Khingsavan said, reaching for his dictionary and magnifying glass, his nose dipping into the pages of the battered book. “Mahmah, can you spell, please?”
“Ping, please start,” I said.
My mother whispered loudly to Khingsavan, “A-M-B . . .”
She was quiet again until we got to question ten. Her objection pertained to the meaning of the word lawyer.
“Lawyers do all kinds of things,” she said, a complaint that concerned not the test but my father, who was a lawyer. “What do lawyers do in Laos?” she asked the students.
“We don’t have,” said Nisith.
My throat was suddenly sore. Since I couldn’t silence her, I suggested we practice conversation for the last fifteen minutes of class.
“Is there anything you would like to ask them about Laos?” I said to my mother.
She folded her hands in her lap and paused, as if in thought. My students seemed riveted. For an instant I saw my mother as they might: a quirky stranger who riled their teacher to unprecedented levels of anxiety.
“Is it true,” she said, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial tone, “that there’s opium grown in the Golden Triangle?”
There was an awkward silence. Even the air conditioner seemed to hum more softly. I stood in front of the white board and gave my mother the look she used to give me at the table when I used my fingers to bulldoze my food toward a fork.
“No,” Nisith said finally.
“But I read that —” my mother said.
“A long time ago,” Nisith said.
“Maybe,” Khingsavan said, “we ask questions to Mahmah.”
I sat down and considered resting my head on my forearms, as the Lao sometimes did at their desks. Some days getting these students to speak was like drawing water from a cactus, but my mother had tapped the secret source.
“Does Kathryn write to you many times?” Nisith asked, the grin on his face spreading to others.
“Well, actually . . .”
After this, I remember only two parts of the exchange:
“Mahmah, Kathryn marries a Lao man — what do you think?”
“That’s fine with me. I told her the only thing she can’t do is buy a Windows computer.”
No one knew what to make of this.
The worst was at the very end: “If Kathryn stays another year, you come visit again — yes?”
“I certainly will.”
Phet came over after her French class.
“Mahmah!” she shrieked, and she wrapped her arms around my mother’s waist. My mother’s arms drifted upward as if to reciprocate, then stopped. Phet wedged her head onto my mother’s shoulder, which contracted toward her ear. “Welcome. I am so happy to meet Kathryn’s mahmah.”
I fetched water from the kitchen. In sweltering Laos, this was standard etiquette.
Phet sipped at her glass, but my mother shook her head.
“It’s bottled water,” I said. “Clean.”
Still she doused it with iodine, pinching her nose as she drank to stifle the flavor.
“I’m going to lie down,” I said. I stretched out on the floor, beneath the spinning fan on the ceiling. I felt calmer in that position, and I noticed how exhausted my mother looked: her hair swirling in every direction, her skin too pale. I also noticed how beautiful Phet was, in her long silk skirt and tailored blouse, and that she spoke near perfect English, her sixth language.
Phet told my mother about her studies, and my mother talked to Phet about our visit, about the famous temples, the restaurants with Western food, the monks, the markets, the tuk-tuk drivers, and the gaping potholes in the road. I listened passively until my mother asked Phet if she preferred Windows to Mac.
“Mother,” I snapped, “there are about one hundred computers in the whole country.”
Phet looked at me as if she’d never seen me before, then turned back to my mother. “Computers are good for Laos, I think, all the different kinds.”
My mother agreed.
As Phet gathered her bookbag, my mother stepped into the other room and returned with the Michigan hat, which Phet received in both hands, as if it were a sacred relic.
“Ohhhh.” She stroked the shiny threads of the word MICHIGAN. “I love it.”
She lowered the hat carefully onto her head and searched a dark window for a faint reflection of herself in the blue-and-yellow baseball cap and traditional silk clothes. For a moment the three of us stood together in that reflection, smiling.
“Thank you,” Phet said softly. “Thank you for the gift.”
“It’s nice that someone appreciates these things,” my mother said, and we both looked away.
“We have baci for Mahmah,” Chantala said the next morning, clapping her hands together, “before she goes.”
Since I’d arrived in Laos, I’d been hoping to experience a baci, a ritual that accompanies all important passages: births, deaths, weddings. It was also held on the Buddhist holy days, after a sickness or a theft, and before or after a journey — as was the case with my mother. The soul could slip away when a person was far from home, and the baci ceremony called it back.
On the last morning of my mother’s visit, I gave Chantala some money for the food. A few hours later other women from the neighborhood came over with knives, cutting boards, vegetables, eggs, papayas, and two squawking chickens.
“It’s too much work,” I said.
“You go teach,” Chantala said, ushering me out the front door.
After class I invited my students to the baci, not expecting anyone to come on such short notice.
“For Mahmah?” they said. “We come.”
That evening, utterly drained, I walked through my door into the most elegant occasion of my life.
Five women had purged the neighborhood of silver bowls and glasses and candlesticks and covered a long table with a white cloth and platters of food: a tray of sliced mango, papaya, and kiwi; a mound of baked egg rolls; bowls of sticky rice, papaya salad, and steamed fish.
Chantala had gathered some village elders to preside over the baci: three silver-headed former monks with coppery skin and gap-toothed smiles. They sat on white plastic chairs in the front yard with the air of benevolent Mafia dons. I fetched water for them, still shocked that I was hosting this event.
I found my mother in her bedroom, half-dressed and fretting over her open suitcase. “Mom, people are here, so don’t parade around in your underwear.”
In my own room I shucked off my sweat-soiled blouse, buttoned up a fresh one, and layered on deodorant. I emerged to find my mother sitting with outstretched legs, her toes near the baci centerpiece: a two-foot-tall sculpture of orange flowers surrounded by plates of food and containers of holy water.
“Mom, you can’t sit like that,” I said, racing toward her. “It’s considered rude here to point your feet at anything.”
“But it’s more comfortable,” she said.
“Too bad,” I whispered. “It’s not just impolite; it’s profane. It would be like someone using a crucifix to scratch their butt.”
With a glazed, petulant look she folded her legs underneath her.
I marveled at the elaborate centerpiece. Six-inch white strings dangled from the blossom stems, and six longer strings stretched out on all sides. We formed a circle on the floor, and my mother, Phet, Nisith, Khingsavan, one of the village elders, and I each grasped a long string between our pressed-together palms. Chantala and the other women sat behind us, touching our shoulders.
Everyone either held a string or touched a person who did. Phet’s face looked serious beneath the Michigan cap. Chantala grinned when I turned to look at her. The moment we were all linked, a sudden quiet came over us.
An elder chanted in Pali, voice rising and falling, his words sometimes spun out rapidly, other times held over several notes. Certain words were repeated over and over, interrupted only by “Leslie,” my mother’s name, drawn out with emphasis on the final syllable: Les-leeeee, Les-leeeee. At the sound of the foreign name, everyone smiled.
Toward the end of the baci, people closed their eyes and laughed as the elder hurled drops of holy water onto our faces.
“Les-leeee, Les-leeee,” everyone cried.
My mother averted her eyes, but her face was soft, and her cheeks were flushed.
For the last part of the baci, everyone untied the shorter strings from the centerpiece and went around the room to tie them on other people’s wrists. The string held the spirit in, it was said, and had to be worn for at least three days, though my students sometimes wore theirs for months.
The person tying the string made a wish out loud for the person receiving it and then secured the knot.
“I wish you health and happiness,” someone said to me.
“I wish you long life.”
“I wish for your dreams to come true.”
“I wish you to stay another year,” said Khingsavan, my quietest student.
I glimpsed my mother across the noisy room, surrounded by people, and I suddenly recognized how far she had come, literally crossing the earth to see me. I felt something like tenderness, as if it had flowed into me from the group, through the strings that had linked us all.
Throughout the meal and several rounds of toasts, my mother looked tired but content, a traditional pabian — prayer scarf — draped over one shoulder.
“She’s never been to a party this rowdy,” I explained to everyone in Lao. “No one is allowed to make her drink rice whiskey or she might fall over.”
Phet and I picked lemons off the tree in the front yard to squeeze into my mother’s water, the way she liked it. My skin tingled in the balmy air, and the fruit felt unbearably real in my hand, as if it were more than an ordinary lemon. I experienced a rare awareness that some things happen only once.
It seemed my mother felt it too, as she stroked the strings on her wrist and sipped lemonade and stayed up far later than usual. I could have tied a string around her wrist, which was shaped so much like mine, and said to her, “I wish for you to know that I love you.” But I didn’t. I wouldn’t. I’d failed to love her well. Even in my failure, though, I had provided people who could — agents of love, with my detoured message that arrived nonetheless.
I heard Nisith say to my mother, “I wish that you don’t forget us, the people of a poor country.”
The next morning these words echoed in my mind as I used my mother’s camera to photograph her with Chantala. In the background was the flat green rice paddy, the orange sun, the listing house. My mother clasped her hands in front of her, her forearms bright with strings. A month later my sister wrote to say that she still wore them, dirty and tattered, around both wrists.